On Trump

November 9, 2016

I don’t normally write about politics, and I have no real desire to contribute to the torrent of reactions to last night’s election. I’ll leave the post-mortem soul-searching to others–I have neither the heart nor the time to spill page after page about my feelings and concerns over a Trump presidency–but I do want to briefly address a few issues about which there is some confusion in the hopes I may offer some insight, if not reassurance.

• I’ve seen many people exaggerate the power that Trump will wield as president. As you’ll recall from high school civics classes, our government has a built-in system of checks and balances, including on the president’s power. The office has considerable power, of course, but Trump will find that the edicts he’s used to issuing as the president of a company and on TV shows can and will be changed, muted, or blocked by others in the government. While his presidency does, I believe, pose many legitimate threats because of his ill-informed positions on a wide variety of subjects ranging from climate change to women’s rights, no U.S. president has free reign. Politicians don’t like to admit it, but the fact is that a country’s progress or success is the product of many external factors that even the POTUS cannot control.

• Many have claimed that Trump’s victory means that most Americans (or a statistical majority) at least implicitly endorse his views and positions. This is factually inaccurate, for several reasons.

First, most Americans did not vote for Donald Trump; in fact slightly more people voted for Clinton than Trump. Fewer than 60 million people, out of about 319 million Americans, voted for Trump, thus about one in five Americans voted for him–a large number to be sure, but a minority. Second, just because one in five Americans voted for him does not mean that they did so because they necessarily agree with him on any given issue, or endorse his views on women, minorities, and so on. As CBS News reported, many people voted for Trump despite not agreeing with him on his signature issues such as immigration.

People rarely agree with all positions taken by a given candidate, and often overlook or downplay views they disagree with–perhaps even vehemently–if there are other subjects which they feel are more important to their lives. Many votes were not cast not so much for Trump but against Clinton, and many analyses have suggested that a big part of Clinton’s loss was due to her supporters not turning out to vote (for whatever reason, including assuming she was going to win anyway). People vote (or not) for any number of reasons unrelated to a candidate’s position on a given topic.

People will see the outcome through whatever prism they choose. Some will attribute it to racism, xenophobia, sexism, misogyny, a news media that emphasized fluff over substance, FBI director Comey’s bizarre actions, Fox News “errors,” or any number of other things. We seek evidence that confirms our pre-existing psychological biases and ignore or downplay evidence that does not. It’s undeniable that many racists and sexists supported Trump, but the fact that Trump was elected does not logically imply that many or most Americans share his views, and decrying that “The racists won” or “Misogyny won” is misguided, inaccurate, divisive, and perhaps most of all, unhelpful in moving forward.

• I’ve also noticed, with a mix of disappointment and consternation, an explicit sense of American exceptionalism (often among my liberal friends). This is reflected in comments such as “We’re better than this” or “How could this happen here?” I’ve traveled widely in my lifetime and it’s given me some cross-cultural perspective. The United States is not inherently any better (or worse) than any other country in that regard. We are not special or exalted merely because of our citizenship. Americans, like Peruvians, Irish, Australians, Austrians, Angolans, and everyone else, are vulnerable to the politics of fear. We all want prosperity, opportunity, and security. Some politicians try to scare voters with threats or appeals to false nostalgia; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

We can shake our heads and wonder why so many Americans fell for it this election, but in fact there’s little mystery. This implicit idea that America is somehow better or more enlightened than other countries is not only historically wrong but feeds on and fuels the same sentiment that Trump tapped into. If you harbor some jingoistic notion of American voter superiority, then you not only have a poor grasp of psychology and political history, but you also share more in common with Trump than you realize.

Some may even take a perverse comfort in the fact that Trump is a serial liar–that he says things for effect, things he doesn’t necessarily mean, takes positions he doesn’t really endorse. (For more on this see my upcoming CFI blog next week on the topic of authenticity.)

As for where we go from here, I didn’t buy Trump’s dire message that America is going to hell and everything is horrible and needs to be made great (or put right) again, and I don’t buy the same message when I hear it from those lamenting Trump’s victory. As Steven Pinker noted in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, overall things are getting better for the world, not worse, by many measures including poverty, crime, warfare, education, and sexism. Michael Shermer, in his book The Moral Arc, extends that argument and discusses moral progress as well; if he’s right then Trump is on the losing side of history anyway.

America survived nearly a decade under perhaps the least competent, arrogant, and willfully ignorant president in modern history. Enormous damage was done during the George W. Bush years, but we recovered and went on to elect the first African-American president. At this point, like it or not, we are all in the same boat. We may not like the captain, but we can help prevent the ship from going down–and set the course aright in four years.